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Ups and downs at Fontana at 15

Hard to realize Auto Club Speedway is entering its 15th season. Guess time flies when you're riding a roller coaster of success and decline.

No track more typifies NASCAR's ups and downs, from the rise to general popularity in the 1990s to the lagging interest of recent years.

And now, will NASCAR's slight uptick of 2011 carry over to Fontana on Sunday? If NASCAR can recapture Southern California's fancy, it can recover anywhere.

We shall see.

The track's opening, as California Speedway, was NASCAR's greatest triumph to that point in the march to the big markets.

It sits now as a symbol of NASCAR's fizzled rush uptown, just another track that has lost one Cup date and is clinging to another, shortened to 400 miles at that.

It opened as a singular showplace among racetracks, swarming with impeccably mannered ushers in straw boaters and striped vests who opened doors and gave you answers and directions and then asked if they could do anything else for you.

Fans were always referred to as "guests," transported to and from the parking lots by a fleet of ornate little trams that set the standards for all other auto racing tracks in America.

Ownership was so meticulous that -- well -- that opening weekend I saw Greg Penske, son of track founder Roger Penske, helping to direct traffic outside the tunnel.

Now it's just another ho-hum holding of International Speedway Corp. The straw boaters and striped vests are long gone.

That Summer Solstice weekend of 1997 marked sea change for NASCAR in California.

Ontario Motor Speedway had closed in 1980, and the old Riverside road course in '89. In the early '90s an effort to build an oval track in the Bay Area had been rebuffed by environmentalists.

So when Roger Penske put Les Richter, the former Rams linebacker and longtime general manager at Riverside, in charge of the Fontana project, I questioned whether they could get it past the locals.

"Of course we will," Richter said at the time. "Nothing could live on that property."

Not only was the abandoned Kaiser Steel mill site a toxic waste disaster, but the appearance of the place was so awful, acres and acres of rusted wreckage, as to provide post-apocalyptic settings for Arnold Schwarzenegger's exploits in the Terminator movies.

But by opening weekend, Penske and Richter had raised a showplace out of the rubble. This was in stark contrast to the opening of Texas Motor Speedway, which had been a debacle -- and that's putting it kindly -- only a couple of months earlier.

The quirky original configuration of the Texas track had drawn sharp criticism from drivers.

Then on opening weekend, most of the unpaved parking lots had become unusable quagmire after a gully-washer rain. The opening-day scene was straight out of Woodstock, with mud-covered cars parked every which way in the medians of I-35W, and Texas Highway 114 shut down and used as an emergency, impromptu parking lot for miles from the track.

Texas just hadn't been ready. California was more than ready.

At 6:30 a.m. on the first day of the first Fontana race weekend, dozens of crewmen waited for the garage area gates to open, and all marveled at the perfection of the grounds.

"I wish Bruton would come and see this," one crewman remarked, referring to Bruton Smith, the track mogul who had built and opened the Texas track precipitously.

Turned out not everything was perfect at Penske's showplace. The garage stalls, built with Indy cars in mind, were too narrow for NASCAR, so the teams had to saw off their jack handles to fit the confines.

In the media conference room, minutes before the first press conference, it was discovered there were no tables for the interviewees to sit at. So Penske himself grabbed a power drill and became the foreman for assembling the tables.

When I encountered Richter that first day, I congratulated him on having everything paved that was supposed to be paved, in such contrast with Texas. He answered with his typical candor.

"We had to," he said. "We had to cap all those toxic hot spots" before state environmental officials would allow the public in.

The track itself was wide and immaculately smooth, engineered with lasers, meant to accommodate the lightning cars of CART at the time, and NASCAR.

Southern Californians packed the place for that first California 500, although they arrived fashionably late and left fashionably early, a la the Dodger Stadium clientele.

With the first CART race that September, it became clear that the track built for both kinds of cars was perfect for neither. After Mauricio Gugelmin won the pole at what was then a world closed course speed record, 240.942 mph, he was clearly shaken when he emerged from his car.

So the track was too fast for Indy cars and too wide for the fender-rubbing style of NASCAR. A young Jeff Gordon tried to explain that although there was plenty of side-by-side racing, the track was so wide, and therefore the cars so far apart, as to take away the visual effect.

The slippery slope began in 1999, when International Speedway Corp. acquired the facility, along with all of Penske's other tracks. By 2000, the Fontana track had lost much of its Disney-esque charm and slipped into ISC's cost-cutting banality.

In 2004 came the biggest mistake. NASCAR -- which is owned outright by the France family, which also controls ISC -- decided to place a second Cup date annually at Fontana.

With that, the Southern California market was jaded to the point of apathy, and attendance dropped.

And so finally, for this season, NASCAR has ceased trying to force-feed the Los Angeles market two Cup races per season, and returned to the original one.

Maybe that will help. Track publicist David Talley reported by email that although Sunday's Auto Club 400 is not a sellout, "we're trending WAAAAAY ahead of last year."

Recent races there have gotten better, as the track surface has aged and drivers take full advantage of all that room to roam.

Will there be an uptick at Fontana?

Sunday, at the place that has paralleled NASCAR's fortunes, we shall see.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.